Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Fix Bad Habits: Insights from a 7-Year Obsession

We all have lousy habits. Things we’d like to do, or know we should, but just don’t seem to happen: exercise, diet, productivity or flossing longer than a week after the visit to the dentist.

In that sense, I’m like most people – still a work in progress.But, unlike most people, I’ve had on ongoing obsession with figuring out how to fix those lousy habits. I’ve spent thousands of hours being an experimental guinea pig, uncovering surprising findings, such as:

  • Implementing a daily exercise plan is easier than exercising 3 times per week
  • Changing 10 meals will change 90% of your eating habits
  • Learning a new skill or language can be accomplished with 5 minutes a day

I don’t expect most people to replicate my, perhaps unhealthy, obsession with self-experimentation. Instead, I want you to save years of trial and error so that you can fix bad habits without frustration.

Why Bother Changing Habits?

My obsession came from a simple idea: with the right conditioning, you could automatically do what you normally need willpower for.

Many people make a commitment every January to start exercising. And, by February, many of them have already given up. That’s because sustaining good behaviors normally takes a lot of effort.

But with habits, you don’t need willpower, they just happen. This concept – that everything I currently spent so much effort on could be made effortless had huge appeal. Even if perfect automation were impossible, if you could make those behaviors much easier then life would become more enjoyable as well.

How to Change a Habit

The first principle is a conditioning period. This is a period of time when you put in effort to make the habit automatic.

A good way to think of the conditioning period is like a rocket entering orbit. It takes fuel to escape gravity, but if you use the right trajectory, you can enter into an orbit, which prevents you from falling back to earth. The goal with creating a habit is to reach orbit (habit) before you run out of fuel (willpower).

Also like a rocket, how you handle the conditioning phase can make a huge difference. A poor trajectory, and you may waste tons of fuel and never reach a stable orbit. The right approach, however, can make the habit change relatively easily.

1. Set a conditioning period.

My practice is to set the default conditioning period for 30 days. Too short, and you’ll fail to reach orbit. Too long, and you won’t summon the initial motivation to overcome gravity.During those first 30 days, your goal is simple – turn the behavior into a habit. It may take longer than 30 days (studies show 66 is a closer mean for true habituation), but this is the period of complete focus.

Making a habit is a different goal than many people have when they first start behavior changes. In most cases, people are after results – they want to lose weight, get a promotion, or master a skill.

But forming a habit is different than getting results. Some of the tactics I’ll describe are lousy for getting results, but perfect for quickly conditioning a habit.

What many people fail to realize is that getting results is much easier once you already have the habit. Being fit is easy if you show up to the gym every day. Being a skilled writer is easier if you’re already writing each day. Habits precede success.

Action Step:

Focus on a 30-day conditioning period.

2. Make the habit every day.

Another mistake people make is believing that performing a behavior 3 times a week is easier than doing it every day.In a naïve way, this makes sense. After all, if you spend 30 minutes every day at the gym, that takes 3.5 hours per week – time out of an already busy schedule. Going twice, in contrast, only takes 1 hour. Therefore if you’ve struggled to stick to exercising, going twice weekly is probably the best first step.

The problem with this logic is it assumes time is the most relevant factor. But aside from rare cases, time is almost never the factor. For most people, if you added up all the wasted moments of procrastination, distraction or gaps between work, there would be more than a few hours left.

If time isn’t lacking, then why is it so difficult to “find the time”?

The reason is that we may be able to find the time, but not the energy. Going to the gym, when it isn’t a habit, requires willpower. After a busy day, you probably don’t have a lot of spare willpower.

Focusing on a daily habit, instead of 3 times a week, is better because the conditioning is stronger and the habit becomes automatic faster. Since every day you exercise, it quickly becomes an automatic part of your routine.

I went through four conditioning periods before the habit of exercise finally stuck. After I did, the habit stuck for 6 years, so that I no longer need to exercise every day to sustain it. Exercising daily was the difference between the first three failures and the eventual success.

Action Step:

Make the habit daily.

3. Strategically replace your biggest lost needs.

Through a conditioning period and daily habits, you alter your trajectory to make it more likely you’ll reach orbit before you run out of fuel. Replacing lost needs is a way of reducing gravity itself – so you are less likely to slide back to bad habits in a moment of weakness.Think of how many diet books exist. Each of them claims some magical cure for losing weight, and each promises to be easy to follow. Now think of how many people actually stick with them. What gives?

Part of the problem is that diets focus only on removing bad habits, “Don’t eat that!” But this leaves a vacuum, which tends to pull people back to lousy ways of eating.

The rationale behind this advice is that people want as much variety as possible – otherwise why would restrictive diets be difficult to follow?

I’ve found a different answer. People don’t want variety. In fact, I’d wager that the top 10 meals of the average person constitute 90% of what they end up eating. If variety were so important, why do people always eat the same meals?

When I switched to a vegetarian diet five years ago, I focused less on what I shouldn’t eat, and more on creating a new list of “Top 10” meals. If I could replace my menu with meals that fit my desired eating habits and taste buds, then my willpower would only be necessary for the less common occasions of eating outside that menu (such as restaurants or family dinners).

Action Step:

If you’re giving something up, focus on replacing the most common 80-90% of that habit.

4. Begin with the start in mind.

Woody Allen famously quipped, “80% of life is showing up.” With habits, I’d guess it’s even higher.The trickiest part of starting a habit is the first step. If you’ve got that handled, the rest usually flows smoothly.

This is easy to understand intuitively. Exercising is mostly about that first step into the gym. Writing is mostly about opening up that blank page. Overcoming procrastination is mostly about the first five minutes of work.

What I learned in creating habits was that this knowledge could allow anyone to make their conditioning efforts vastly more efficient. If the first step required the most conscious control, then habituating that first step would cover most of the habit itself.

This means that learning a new skill or language doesn’t need to begin with commitments to invest dozens of hours each week. Simply committing to starting for five minutes every day conditions you to get used to performing the habit.

Once the conditioning period is over, it’s much easier to scale up your efforts, than to build the habit from scratch.

Since the conditioning period is a race between reaching orbit and running out of fuel, this principle has drastic implications. Conditioning the first 5-15 minutes of a habit takes a tenth of the effort, so even for stubborn habits, you can make them automatic before worrying about performance.

One way to do this is to commit to only the first step of your habit in the 30-day trial, with the rest being optional. For example, committing to jogging every day, but not committing to any specific workout length (allowing you run for just 15 minutes if you really have no time).

The advantage of this approach is that even though your commitment is minimal (5-15 minutes), in practice you’ll probably do the entire habit most of the time. This lets you leverage a bit of willpower to get larger results.

Action Step:

Focus on making the first 5-15 minutes of your habit your “must” during the first 30 days.

Results from a Habit-Obsessed Life

After repeating this process dozens of times, the intuition is that it would turn you into a robot. You’d be so obsessed with performing your habits, that you wouldn’t have space for spontaneity or fun.But my experience actually taught me the opposite – knowing how to change your habits gives you freedom. Like the discipline of the pianist frees him to play any song, the initial ability gives new flexibility.

Knowing how to create habits lets you put your energies into other pursuits. I’d rather put my time into figuring out how to write better, than worry about meeting my quota, or how to be stronger than guilt myself for missing the gym.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my experimental odyssey, it is that we’re all governed by habits. The difference is whether you control your habits, or whether they control you.

More insights on: Skill Development, Well-being

Scott Young

more posts →
Scott Young is a popular self-improvement blogger and author of How to Change a Habit. You can join his free newsletter to get your free copy of his rapid-learning ebook.
load comments (55)

Comments